Hot dogs, bagels, pizza by the slice — and Southern fried chicken?
It might have seemed strange to native New Yorkers when a Bojangles food truck pulled into Times Square and served up chicken sandwiches. But to Southern transplants in the Big Apple, it was a dream come true. For three days in July 2021, the Charlotte-based fast-food giant drummed up coverage for its new sandwich among the country’s biggest media outlets and influencers.
“We wanted to make a really big splash in the whole Chicken Sandwich Wars,” says the company’s vice president of communications, Stacey McCray.
And they did. Sandwich sales shot through the roof in the weeks following the New York City tour, which will come as no surprise to anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line. After 46 years in the business, Bojangles knows how to do fried chicken. And McCray, a 2000 University of South Carolina alumna, knows how to promote it.
The Wadesboro, North Carolina, native was a Bojangles devotee well before joining the company’s leadership.
“My grandmother used to take me to Bojangles all the time, sometimes before church, sometimes after church, but we would always get breakfast,” she says.
She stayed in North Carolina for undergrad, majoring in journalism at Wake Forest, but she kept hearing good things about the public relations program at USC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. When she eventually decided to broaden her career horizons, a master’s degree in Columbia seemed like the perfect next step.
“What I loved about South Carolina’s program was that it was a little bit of everything in terms of strategic communications and integrated communications,” she says. “We took some classes in the business school. We took a marketing management class and media law, that type of thing. It was a really diverse program that gave me an opportunity to learn not just about putting a pure, traditional PR strategy and plan together, but also to think more broadly about how it all fits into the entire marketing mix.”
Fitting the pieces together has been the name of the game since McCray was hired by Bojangles as senior director of communications in 2021 and promoted to VP in March of this year. It was the name of the game even before that, during her 17 years with the brand’s public relations agency of record, Luquire.
And big things are happening. In the past two years, Bojangles has ventured boldly into new territory — expanding into new states, adding new menu items and even partnering with a North Carolina brewery to launch a hard sweet tea.
With each change, McCray has played a critical role in ensuring things run smoothly. When CEO Jose Armario made headlines earlier this summer — Armario was quoted in a story saying he’d “like to get out of the chicken business,” sending some media outlets into a frenzy — McCray didn’t miss a beat setting the record straight.
Armario had, in fact, gone on to explain that Bojangles was working to enhance the customer experience, McCray reminded reporters. The company was removing bone-in chicken from restaurants opening in new markets, but it was also ramping up its boneless chicken offerings at these locations and streamlining menus to simplify operations. Diehard Bojangles fans had no need to worry: Menus at existing restaurants, she reiterated, would remain the same.
There is plenty of hard data to justify the company’s focus on boneless chicken — many customers prefer Bojangles’ Chicken Supremes (McCray herself calls the breaded chicken strips her favorite menu item) — but that doesn’t preclude backlash. McCray’s success as a communicator hinges largely on her ability to explain those kinds of decisions to the company’s stakeholders — internal audiences, franchisees and customers — and earn their buy-in.
“Essentially, it’s making sure that we have a communication strategy, that we have the right talking points and key messages when we’re going out into these different audiences to tell that story of ‘the why’ behind why we’re doing this in new markets and what we’re planning to do in our legacy markets where people know us best,” she says.
Few people know Bojangles better than tailgaters, especially in the Carolinas, home to nearly half of the restaurant chain's 800-plus locations.
“Having those big meals, lots of chicken, lots of fixins and football — that’s the South,” McCray says. “There’s so much heritage and history around football. It’s a Southern tradition, a Southern staple. Food and the game just fit together.”
Naturally, tailgating is an integral part of the brand’s marketing strategy. Last fall, the company seized on the chance to boost gameday sales even more by bringing back its sports-themed Big Bo Boxes, family meals emblazoned with college and NFL logos. USC was one of the 11 teams featured, and McCray made sure to display one of the Gamecock boxes in her office. That same season, Bojangles launched its first-ever Tailgate Tour, which culminated with a stop at the USC vs. Tennessee game in Columbia.
Bojangles is a big sponsor of SEC and ACC sports, so attending football games is nothing new for McCray. But seeing her alma mater on the gridiron — like she plans to do at the USC vs. North Carolina matchup this September — stirs up the Gamecock spirit, even when she’s far away from Williams-Brice.
“I feel it in my office,” she says with a laugh. “I feel it all the time. I work with a number of Gamecock alums, and the energy around the things Bojangles does in Columbia and in South Carolina is felt all the time. I mean, when people see the South Carolina Big Bo Box in my office, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you went to Carolina? I know somebody who went there, too.’”
And it’s not only about football and school spirit. McCray traces a straight line from her coursework to her current position at Bojangles.
“You know, 20 years later, I’m doing exactly what I love and using the principles that I learned from the university,” she says. “Some of the communications trends have changed, but the foundation of what we learned about strategic communications and how to do it the right way is the same.”